Best Movies by Farr: Darker Dassin

September 16, 2011 | John Farr

Once a successful Hollywood director, Connecticut-born Jules Dassin turned to Europe to revive his film career after being blacklisted in the years after WW2. Here are three of his darker films from his Hollywood noir days.

Brute Force (1947)

Tough, unsmiling inmate Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) has spent much of his long prison term butting heads with sadistic, power-hungry Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Sentenced to a merciless work detail in the subterranean drain pipe after one of Munsey’s stool pigeons is killed in a machine-shop accident, Collins determines to hatch a breakout plan with his cellmates.

Made just prior to “Naked City,” Dassin’s gritty prison melodrama puts a twist on the archetypal bust-out scheme by revisiting, in flashback, the pre-penitentiary lives of Collins – ably played by an intense young Lancaster – and his crew, colorfully brought to life by character actors Whit Bissell, Howard Duff, and John Hoyt. In a fine performance, Charles Bickford appears as the prison’s gruff de facto leader and newspaper editor who throws in his lot with Collins. The other ace in Dassin’s deck is Cronyn, playing a corrupt, savage prison guard bent on bringing “discipline” to his inmates, while nursing a megalomaniacal ambition to replace the wimpy Warden. Aside from the ominous noir visuals, Dassin explores issues endemic to prison life and wraps them up in an ugly finale meant to evoke a Nazi bloodbath.

The Naked City (1948)

When a high-class model is murdered in her bathtub on New York’s Upper West Side, veteran detective Lt. Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) is called in to solve the crime. Tediously reconstructing the previous 18 months of the young woman’s decadent social life, Muldoon, along with sidekick Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), pursues a seemingly endless string of weak leads and no-account witnesses in hopes of cracking the case.

Shot entirely on location in 1940s Manhattan, this semi-documentary police procedural offers a day-to-day look at the life of the Big Apple, its varied denizens, and the routine of two cops-old hand Fitzgerald (who quietly steals the film) and the dutiful but still green Taylor–out to catch to catch the killer of a young model. Soon the fast-talking Frank Niles, who knew the deceased and has no alibi, emerges as the prime suspect. Director Dassin handles all the action with a matter-of-fact directness, but the great achievement of “City” is its verisimilitude of character and place, along with a final chase scene on the Williamsburg Bridge that will steal your breath away. There might be “8 million stories in the naked city,” but this sinister crime drama was the first-and still the best. Trivia note: this film was said to have inspired “Dragnet”.

Thieves’ Highway (1949)

Returning home from World War II, stout-hearted mechanic Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) is angered upon learning that devious trucking boss Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) is to blame for the accident that left his father legless. Vowing revenge, Nick colludes with fellow driver Ed (Millard Mitchell) to expose Figlia’s crooked racket, even if it means breaking the law.

Like Raoul Walsh’s 1940 film “They Drive by Night,” Dassin’s drama deals with the hard-line culture of rig drivers who transport goods and produce from state to state, often at great risk to their health and livelihood, and their connection to underworld crime. Cobb is terrific as the pitiless Figlia, and Conte is stalwart as the war vet whose quest for vengeance leads him down a dangerous path-away from alienated fiancĂ©e Polly (Barbara Lawrence) and into the arms of prostitute Rica, played by the luscious Valentina Cortesa. Dassin’s second to last film before his blacklist-related exile in France, “Highway” is road noir at its redline best.

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